There has been several movies made about The Challenger disaster and my interest has been sparked following the Netflix series The Challenger Disaster. Instead of focusing on the actual event, Challenger is a BBC TV movie that focuses on the investigation into why the disaster happened. It is a slow burn but offers great insight into how a whitewash cover up was averted.
The disasters faced
The Challenger disintegration, not wearing a tie to dinner, corporate pissing competitions and wondering if spending your final days battling NASA is the best use of your time.
William Hurt plays Richard Feynman, a scientist who won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum physics. He also worked on the Manhattan project to build the first atom bomb. Clearly unimpressed and conflicted with his efforts in the war and the use of his science, he has moved away from the political world. That is until The Challenger falls apart on the 28th January 1986.
Richard is requested to join the Presidential Commission to find out what happened. The problem is, he is the only member of the commission who isn’t aligned to a party involved. Rogers and his crew are focused on ensuring NASA don’t cop the blame. They have too much at stake, especially when you consider a civilian teacher was onboard and killed. General Kutyna instead feels like the military has been hung out to dry and has a different view.
As the investigation starts to raise questions for Richard that no-one seems prepared to answer, he turns to Sally Ride, the first female astronaut in space, who seems to be coming up short on answers too. Slowly Richard, Sally and Kutyna start to pick apart the odd theory or two before they arrive at a faulty part and cold conditions as an issue. All the while Rogers and NASA thwart Richard’s progress. Allan Macdonald from the part manufacturers takes the stand to state that NASA were aware of the faults and issues of the part but decided to run with it anyway. NASA disagrees.
All of this takes place with Richard’s health suffering in the background. Away from wife Gwen and daughter Michelle, he is finding out that his blood cancer, likely caused from his earlier work, is winning the health battle. With NASA drawing everything out and purposely closing doors at every turn, how can Richard expose the truth in the court case and is it worth spending his dying days fighting for?
Why is it worth watching?
Challenger is very much in the non-sensationalist factual drama style of film making. Don’t expect huge cinematic moments. Expect quiet conversations, moments of realisation, frustrating bureaucracy and quiet triumphs. Everything from the colour palettes, to the quiet wide shots to the acting styles shows that restraint is key across the whole film. I found that style mirrored the main problem with the actual commission itself. Everyone was gagged and unable to ask truly freeing questions because of who they represented and their agenda. With Richard being the only one able to speak freely, he has to piece together issues from breadcrumbs.
This works well enough but it does mean that Challenger comes across a little stiff in places. Thankfully Rogers, played by Brian Dennehy, is an excellent counterbalance. His gruff, brash, dismissive and single minded view that NASA does a great job and that’s that is fantastic. There is a scene early on where he literally tells everyone that this is the case and no one bats an eyelid except Richard. Having worked in the civil service for over a decade, this kind of thing absolutely happens today and it has limited my own career many times. Thankfully, I have integrity and so does Richard.
Lastly, Challenger aligns best as a court room drama. The final third of the movie takes place in the courtroom and whilst it doesn’t have the surprise ending as we know the ending, it is still enjoyable finding out how we got there and who worked with whom. It needed to nail that victory moment and it does so. There’s nothing quite like exposing people for what they are with simplicity and openness.
There are two styles of effects used in the film. The first comes from the crash scene investigation section of the film. The vast warehouses of shuttle pieces and seeing the test shuttle in action all look great. They aren’t used often but are well placed. The second is more subtle – weaving in real footage into the background of scenes. Often Richard, Gwen and Michelle are watching footage of news reports, speeches and so on and its all placed subtly in the background. Of course, the 80’s tech is all there too. It really sells the idea that this film was taking place just after the event and it was still top bill for the media.
This is largely where Challenger falls down a little. Richard is anti establishment, which is lovely, but he doesn’t get much time to muse on some of his important decisions. Kutyna likes cars and that’s his arc. Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong are just there as professionals and work in the shadows. The marriage of Richard and Gwen works nicely, as does the limited screen time of Dr Weiss, Richard’s doctor. These stories add in a bit more of a human element into what feels like quite a mechanical film by design.
I would want to slap Rogers round the face though. What a nasty piece of work.
Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, in as much as anything can be known because nothing is known absolutely.earning that noble prize richard!
Three memorable moments
- The initial meeting where Rogers declares everyone will find that NASA did a good job.
- Pissing blood at the urinal and declaring ‘I like beets’.
- Seeing the wreckage of everything and Richard’s declaration to find the truth.
The obligatory weird moment
With a film this serious, there isn’t really a weird moment. I did find that for how pivotal Allan Macdonald’s role in court was, its strange he is in about four scenes total.
The drinking game
Is that a typewriter or a folder of typed documents I see before me? DRINK!
Whilst it runs the risk of probably being a little too cold and business like at times, Challenger excels in the courtroom. Whether its re-treading old ground or you are finding out about this legendary calamity for the first time, it is an entertaining ride. Best watched as part of a selection of movies and series on the event though.
Rating: 3 / 5 Good
View the films page for more info on the cast, crew, artwork and screenshot gallery.
If you enjoyed Challenger then you may like…
- Challenger: The Final Flight – A 4 part series that explores the tragedy in great detail.
- Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars – a documentary about the civilian astronaut killed in the event.
- Apollo 13 – Houston, we have a problem… too.
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